Bowdoin’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

by Michael Toscano
The school isn’t being honest about its hostility to Evangelical Christianity.

Bowdoin College is not happy with the New York Times. Earlier this week, the paper ran a front-page story about the way Bowdoin engineered the eviction from its campus of a Christian group that had proved troublesome. The small liberal-arts college was apparently stung by the negative attention from a newspaper it cannot ignore and promptly issued a blanket denial.

The college’s response falls into the category of audacious obfuscation.

The Times cited Bowdoin as an example of the growing conflict on American campuses caused by a new interpretation of the principle of “non-discrimination.” The idea is that it constitutes unacceptable discrimination for religious student groups to require that their leaders affirm certain religious tenets and moral teachings. This new interpretation conflicts with the longstanding principle that colleges respect the religious freedom of their students. Increasingly, the Times reported, colleges are sacrificing religious freedom in the effort to open positions of leadership in religious groups to gay students.

The Times’ lead example was the burden that Bowdoin College put on the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF), an Evangelical group with about 40 members among the college’s 1,800 students. “After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college,” the Times reported. “Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers.”

In its official reply, Bowdoin asserted that, on the contrary, (1) the college has “no plans to drop . . . recognition” of the BCF, (2) the BCF is “free to sponsor speakers or other presentations that promote their beliefs,” and (3) the group is “free to choose their own student leaders.” The statement declared, “Religious freedom and spirituality are alive and thriving at Bowdoin.”

But Bowdoin is not telling the whole story. My organization, the National Association of Scholars, has been watching the college closely for some time. In April 2013, we published What Does Bowdoin Teach?, a 370-page study, of which I was co-author, on how Bowdoin’s curriculum and student activities shape the intellectual and moral lives of its students. The BCF was featured in 15 pages of the report, and we found a recurring and highly public conflict between the Bowdoin administration and the BCF over the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

On October 30, 2009, guest speaker Robert Gagnon, a theologian from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was giving a BCF-sponsored talk on the Bible and homosexual acts, which was open to the entire campus. During the event, director of student life Allen DeLong shouted from the back of the packed room, “What does this say about the character of the Intervarsity staff to bring this wolf in sheep’s clothing here?” DeLong remains the director of student life, and it does not appear that there were any consequences for his egregiously uncollegial outburst. Similarly, in September 2011, Leana Amaez, associate dean of multicultural student programs, refused to pay an honorarium to BCF guest speaker Pastor Sandy Williams after two students complained that he preached on the Book of Romans 1:18–32, in which the Apostle Paul called sexual relations between men and men or women and women “error.” Amaez said, “I will not fund things where students feel as if that aspect of their humanity is not being included or appreciated.”

There are other examples. Bowdoin is presenting this “non-discrimination” policy as something that emerged disinterestedly and spontaneously. In fact, Bowdoin was using this policy to wrestle the BCF into place, to force it to deny its commitments to orthodox Christianity’s teachings on conjugal sexuality.

After the release of our report, in the spring 2014 semester, Bowdoin instituted a new “non-discrimination” policy, which required student-group volunteers to allow any student, no matter what his lifestyle or beliefs, to occupy a leadership post in any student group. In the case of the BCF, its leadership must be open to students who do not necessarily adhere to its creedal profession. When Rob and Sim Gregory — BCF volunteers who represent Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a national ministry with individual campus chapters — refused to sign the policy, Bowdoin evicted them from campus.

Additionally, as the Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper, reported in February, the college also adopted “new standards” and new charters for student clubs requiring that student leaders adhere to the college’s new policy. The Orient was very clear on why: “These two clauses [were] partly inspired by the recent developments of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, whose advisors have resigned claiming that the non-discrimination clause in the College’s new volunteer agreement would violate their faith.” As the Times reported, the student leaders of the BCF refused to comply.   

Throughout this controversy, Bowdoin has sought to publicly shame the Gregorys for non-compliance. In the college’s statement, they described the Gregorys as two “outside” volunteers who “wanted to dictate the leadership of BCF.” The Gregorys have faithfully served the BCF since 2005. The Gregorys are not outsiders. Not according to Reid Wilson (Class of 2014), who told the Times, “It’s hard socially to find people on this campus who make faith a strong part of their identity — people who really understand me and who I can really be open with.” The BCF, with the Gregorys at the helm, he continues, have “been a tremendous resource for me.”

Far worse, however, was dean of student affairs Timothy Foster, who reportedly told the Orient that the new non-discrimination policy was developed in reaction to Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of children. The Bowdoin community rightly read this as an equation of the Gregorys with Sandusky. As one alumnus wrote in a letter to the editor, “Are we really supposed to believe the monster from Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, should be used as any example, a connection or even anywhere in the same article as the exemplary Christian leaders Rob and Sim Gregory?”

Bowdoin’s reply to the Times reveals a fundamental problem with the way it understands religion. Bowdoin complained, “Every other volunteer connected with a student organization signed the agreement.” The clear implication was that because the Muslim and Catholic volunteers signed it, Evangelical Christians should be able to do so also. Bowdoin really believes that religions and religious doctrines are entirely fungible. In this view, religions have no unique internal integrity, traditions, and doctrines that make specific and different demands on their adherents. They are all just collections of subjective and arbitrary “beliefs” that can be reordered at whim by students, volunteers, and Bowdoin itself. This view is most apparent in the statement’s assertion that the problem with the Gregorys was that they sought to make “choices” and “decisions” about Christian sexuality on behalf of the students. According to Bowdoin, “These decisions are up to the students themselves.”

Bowdoin simply does not understand religion, and that’s why its non-discriminatory policy is really no surprise. The college cannot understand that what it calls “choices” and “decisions” are for the Gregorys, the BCF, and the other religious men and women at Bowdoin College, matters of faith, truth, and even love.

— Michael Toscano is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars and co-author of What Does Bowdoin Teach?: How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.

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